Dance Review: San Francisco Ballet’s Works by Mark Morris and Ashley Page

March 4th, 2013

Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet Members of the company in “Beaux,” by Mark Morris, with an entirely male cast and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi.

SAN FRANCISCO — When San Francisco Ballet celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2008, it had achieved the unusual feat of making its third quarter-century its most prestigious, the one that established it as a world-class company, with seasons on the East Coast and in Europe. This it owed to Helgi Tomasson, who became its artistic director in 1985.

Yet only five years later, with Mr. Tomasson still at the helm, the troupe seems to be proposing that its fourth quarter-century will be its strongest. Last fall it presented a London season of 10 ballets, 9 of which it had commissioned in the last four years. And over the weekend, in the company’s home theater at the War Memorial Opera House here, it presented two triple bills, including five commissions from the years 2008 to 2013.

I saw Program 3 with difference casts at Saturday’s two performances; its three ballets had scores (finely conducted by Martin West and excellently played) ranging in date from 1913 to 2001. Yuri Possokhov’s “Rite of Spring” (whose world premiere occurred on Feb. 26) was preceded by two impressive ballets both from 2012, Ashley Page’s “Guide to Strange Places” and Mark Morris’s “Beaux.” The “Rite” is lurid fun along “Wild Women of Wongo” lines; the other two works are not only worth seeing but repay seeing twice.

Every ballet company needs a “Beaux.” Created for nine men without women, it’s not just this program’s most refreshing and original piece, it’s also the happiest rethink of masculinity that ballet has seen in decades. George Balanchine said in 1959: “Put 16 women on the stage, and it’s everybody — it’s the world. Put 16 men, and it’s always nobody.” To that “Beaux” says, “No.” The costume designs and backdrop, by Isaac Mizrahi, combine the patterns of camouflage fatigues with bright anti-camouflage colors (yellow, orange, pink); these may be, as my companion plausibly suggested, Mr. Mizrahi’s response to the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the American military.

Mr. Morris, although basically a modern-dance man, has worked intermittently with leading ballet companies for over 25 years; usually he pushes against ballet’s grain in some way, usefully working against orthodox conceptions of structure, hierarchy and gender. Since 1994 he has established a long and fertile relationship with San Francisco Ballet, providing eight creations. “Beaux” — set to boldly textured music, written in 1935 by Bohuslav Martinu and featuring harpsichord — is among the very few works in ballet that acknowledge the ways men exist in today’s world.

The “Beaux” men are stripped of standard male bravura steps. In each of Saturday’s casts all nine men danced as if revealing some happily innocent core of themselves. They’re hunks, angels, Pucks, darlings, colleagues, cavaliers, chums. Sexuality is never the central issue here. A query hovers — does what’s going on among these men occasionally suggest sexual regard? — but only as background. The manner varies between formal and informal (dancing now for us, now as if for one another); a wide selection of lifts and partnering occur.

The subject is dancing. Movement ranges from large to small, from academic rigor to unacademic (though highly precise) playfulness; the steps’ sheer danciness is irresistible. Most of the composition is for trios. One threesome forms a chain, running comically to wind itself around one of their number (or, later, to unwind itself). One man is flown by two others through the air like a glider. Those are motifs, but there are also marvelously surprising once-only moments, for example when one dancer switches from dependence to independence. After being supported by a taller man he breaks free toward the audience in jumps and turns of beautiful vitality and classical ease.

Ashley Page, a British choreographer little known in America, was born the same month as Mr. Morris (August 1956); he too emerged as a choreographer in the 1980s, creating many pieces for the Royal Ballet, and was artistic director of the Scottish Ballet from 2002 to 2012. “Guide to Strange Places” is the latest of several pieces by him to John Adams music; his choreography answers the score’s drastically different sonorities and rhythms.

His four leading male-female couples (dressed in different dark colors by Jon Morrell against a backdrop, variously lighted by David Finn, that suggests part of a spider’s web) and 10 supporting dancers move in post-Balanchine drastic classicism. Appealing are the metric complexity of the steps, the high-tension energy of the movement, the varied ways in which men and women work together as equals, and the ways in which geometric patterns reflect the music’s unresolved harmonies. Of the Page works I’ve seen this is the best since the 1980s. Both casts on Saturday responded to its challenges with cool mastery.

Mr. Possokhov has been the San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer in residence since 2006. His “Rite of Spring” creates a faux-primitive forest society: 12 wild women (repeatedly pulling their loose frocks up over their heads) are brightly ravished by 12 bare-chested male hunter-gatherers. (The woodland set is by Benjamin Pierce, the costumes by Sandra Woodall.) A pair of male elders, linked by a single skirt to look like a centaur with two torsos (or the pushmi-pullyu of the Doctor Dolittle children’s books), single out one woman to dance. But the tribe sacrifices her: her body is roped to several saplings and, implicitly, ripped apart.

All this is watchable in a cartoon-horror way, but its emphasis is constantly on the edge of comedy. Whenever the music gets complex, Mr. Possokhov goes for the most rhythmically obvious pulse instead. As the sacrificial female victim, Jennifer Stahl (first cast) was resentful and forceful, Dores André (second) baffled and innocent. The serious drama was all in the music; Mr. Possokhov hitched a ride.

San Francisco Ballet’s season continues at the War Memorial Opera House through May 12; (415) 865-2000 or sfballet.org.

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